Thursday, June 30, 2011

Glorious Fourth: Gettysburg's Joyful Holiday, 1861

I know I promised the second half of my series on who own's black history to you all last week. And I do still promise it to you. But time slipped through my fingers this week, and I would rather devote a few more hours to ruminating on the next installment than to go off half cocked.

But I don't want to deprive anyone of good content this week, so I think we'll take a look back 150 years to what the men and women of Adams County were doing as the July 4th holiday was fast approaching. The Adams Sentinel of July the 10th reported:

A Paper in the Army.

On last Wednesday evening, about dusk, two printers in the army at Martinsburg proposed to get out a newspaper for the 4th. It was approved by the officers, and volunteer printers were called for. They stepped out by dozens, and at 10 o'clock a squad of fourteen entered the office of the "Virginia Republican," a bitter organ of the secessionists, the editor of which had closed the concern and joined the rebel army.- They struck a light, found plenty of paper, ink, &c. and went to work, and by morning had out their paper, "The American Union." It has in it the Declaration of Independence, and a number of patriotic songs, also an account of the advance of the army into Virginia, and other war items, with several other articles. When they entered the office, they found it littered with the evidence of treason, and standing on the press, "locked-up," ready to work, was a form containing several secession songs - one of which they give in the paper. Our townsman, SAMUEL VANDERSLOOT, Esq. was one of the Editors. Among the patriotic songs in the paper, is one written by him, as follows:

By S. V. Co. E. 2D Regt.
Tune- "Wait for the Wagon."

"The Union" is our watchword where'er our footsteps roam.
And with the friends of freedom we always find a home;
Our hearts are with our country, our eyes are on our flag;
And we will plant it North and South on plain or mountain crag.
CHORUS:- Then wait for the Union,
The proud sailing Union,
The imperishable Union,
And we'll all take a ride.

We've left our home and kindred, in quest of traitor hosts,
Resolved that we will bravely die, or drive them from our coasts:
Our fathers fought the mother when she raised the tyrant hand.
And we will whip the brother who wo'd scourge our happy land.
CHORUS- Then wait for the Union, &c.

Our wagons are "substantial," and our horses large and full.
We have pork and beef and crackers, just as much as they can pull;
All our men are "gay and happy" while there's aught of work to do,
And when they get into the battle they will "put the rebels through."
CHORUS- Then wait for the Union, &c.

Our cause is just and holy, our laws "must be preserved."
And in the work of fighting, we cannot be unnerved:
God bless our noble army-in them we all confide-
So jump into the Union and we'll all take a ride.
CHORUS- Then wait for the Union, &c.

Samuel J. Vandersloot, a 25 year old Gettysburg attorney, enlisted as a private the 2nd Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment on April 20th, 1861. Less than a month after he and his comrades published their paper, on the 26th of July Vandersloot was mustered from service at Harrisburg. Five days before, the Army of Northeastern Virginia had its nose bloodied at Manassas. Picnickers, keen on sightseeing and eager to witness the one great battle of the war became entangled on the roads among the retreating Federal forces. Civilian and soldier alike became prey to the advancing rebel forces, some captured and sent South to prison at Richmond. The nation realized this might be a longer war than 90 days. Vandersloot, for his part, escaped his short taste of soldier life unscathed. The unit never saw substantial action before being mustered out.

In Gettysburg on July 4th, 1861, bells rang and cannons fired to celebrate the birth of that nation a scant four score and five years before. After scenes of soldiers marching through Gettysburg's streets, uniforms sharp and crisp, the town processed in hacks and carriages to Spangler's Spring for a picnic, and, "an excellent one it was." One hundred and sixty people, the Sentinel reported, lounged on the meadow and in the shade of the trees on a quite and joyous summer holiday. War was as far as it could be from bucolic Gettysburg.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Locks and Cash: Whose Black History? (Part 1)

I have been very excited all spring, looking forward to an event which few Civil War folks had on their calendars. I have.

The monument depicts soldiers and
sailors in motion. Their energy is infectious.
CC / WallyG
The African-American Civil War Memorial has been a favorite site of mine in DC (and not simply because it's just down the block from the District's best restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl). It is a monument in the right setting. Instead of being on the mall with the rest of the other monuments, to be easily overlooked like the DC World War I memorial or similar sidelights to the big three of Lincoln, Washington and Vietnam, the African American Civil War Memorial is in a community that can be moved by it.

U street is a key historic community, the heart of Shaw and a community which has been historically black for over a century. Duke Ellington was born there. DC's African American populace found culture and formed community there in the early 20th century, in spite of segregation in the Nation's capitol. Where better to have a monument to honest, hard working Americans of African decent than in the heart of a community where their inspiration can reach out to a modern African-American community?

Starting this summer, the monument will be flanked by a real, professional museum to help buttress and support its interpretive mission. And that museum is opening in July of this year. And they are charging $200 per person to be there for the ribbon cutting.

In the end this is their right. The museum appears to be a private concern. The African-American Civil War Museum can charge an exorbitant fee for participation in their opening programs. It is their prerogative.

But is it wise? Are they preserving history through these actions, or segregating that history away from those who could benefit the most from its inspiration? Whose history is "black history" anyways?

The invitation to the event as it appears on the
museum's website. Click to enlarge.
The African-American Civil War Museum seems to be declaring that history is the domain of the rich. Instead of a public focused event, they are launching the museum with a proverbial black-tie style gala ribbon cutting. The vast majority of DC's African-American population cannot afford $200 per person to participate in the event. Screenings of Birth of a Nation and Glory will be part of the festivities, presumably with interpretive introductions discussing the value and meaning of the films. But will the eyes and ears who need to see them, who would benefit the most from being inspired by Glory and revolted by Birth of a Nation, be in the audience when tickets cost $200 a pop? I understand the need for ticketing when seats might run low and fire codes might be broken. But is the $200 fee blatant fund-raising, with no interpretive mission?

Could this sailor have scraped together $11
(the 1863 equivalent value) to attend
the opening of the museum?
CC / WallyG
DC is the land of the free museum. The Smithsonian museums are free. They collectively reach millions of eyes each year. Rich and poor alike can see the Apollo capsules, Lincoln's hat and the majestic dinosaurs. The National Archives is free. Rich and poor alike can read the promise that they, too, are heirs to the American dream of, "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." The Library of Congress is free. Rich and poor alike have unfettered access to the wealth of the ages in the greatest treasury of human knowledge since Alexandria. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and Ford's Theatre all are free to all, regardless of how much spare change they have in their pockets.

Who cares if I, a short, fat white boy from New York, can see the African-American Civil War Museum? I can afford the price if I tried hard enough. If there is an admission fee for the museum, I'll eventually pay it. I care about black history. I see black history as my history too. But I don't need to learn those lessons which can be taught by these men who risked all for freedom. I already have.

I want to see the public history profession preaching to the congregation and not simply the choir.

I want a poor mother of a few kids barely scraping by in some obscure corner of DC to take her family to this place and draw strength from it. I want a homeless man to stumble in off the street and draw inspiration to try again at bettering his life because that's what these men did, again and again, in the face of insurmountable odds. I want a penniless college student, working minimum wage jobs to put themselves through school to think that if those men could face such cruelty and unfairness, maybe they might be able to continue on too. I want everyone, white or black, rich or poor, young or old to have access to this story everywhere it lives in America because it's their history. Anything short and I think we've failed as a society and as public historians.

So, I won't be taking a day off for the grand opening of the museum. I'll be sitting at my desk instead, probably listening to the soundtrack of Glory and daydreaming about those men who inspire me everyday to keep moving forward. They'll be marching across my consciousness. I'll make it to U-Street to see the museum soon, after the expensive hullabaloo is all over. And you can bet there will be a review right here. I hope against all else it will be a positive one.

Next week, I'll try to bring this question of who should have the right to lock up history a bit closer to home. Sometimes it's not cash that stands in the way, but a simple iron gate.

CC / Kevin H.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Slavery and Justice Today

On last week's post, the user doubleshotcanister left a great comment:doubleshotcanister makes a great point about being ever mindful of our present connections to past historical atrocities, crimes against humanity, and the other not-so-shining moments of our country's history. I agree with him. Not only do we have to come clean about our nation's past history - equally laying out the bad and good to find a useable past, but also to be cognizant of our decisions and actions today. We need to take into account how our actions relate to history by asking ourselves, "Are we in fact repeating past mistakes?" I think good public history should connect historical events with controversial topics today, for we still struggle with the same basic problems our forefathers did (in the U.S. it's namely civil rights, federalism, and the ideas of freedom and liberty). While on one hand, public history is about finding meaning and relevance in the past, it is also using that knowledge of the past to engage with the present, and its similar situations related to historical events. When we discuss slavery at Civil War sites, the feeling that we as public historians sometimes impart is that the historical issues we are presenting are in the past - and that they have no relation to events that are occurring today.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. For example, this past fall, I had the opportunity to volunteer for Cuyahoga Valley National Park's annual Underground Railroad program they do every October. The program involved conductors (such as me) who took visitors on an approximate 2-mile hike around the park at night, where the visitors had to negotiate meeting 'historic' characters of the surrounding area on their quest for freedom. The visitors met these characters in a series of several vignettes that interpreted the struggle on the road to freedom. Visitors has to ask themselves, "Can this man be trusted?" and "Who should we ask for help?" In the end, the groups are ultimately captured by slave catchers, and boarded onto one of the park trains to be taken 'south' or in the case of the visitors, back to their cars. The train ride is pitch black with the only sound coming from several volunteers singing the freedom songs of the slaves. It is a very moving program that is classic NPS interpretation. It is full of suspense, tension, and fear - all based on sound historical research of the surrounding area.

When the visitors get off the train, the lead ranger running the program is there to met them and debrief with them around a roaring campfire. The interpreter leads the group in a discussion on what the folks just experienced, teasing out of the audience their feelings and thoughts about the journey. The interpreter wraps up and sends the visitors on their way, with a call to action from today. He/she relates the story of a young child who escaped from slavery in India not to long ago and came to America to tell his story. The child went on a national speaking tour raising awareness about slavery today. Unfortunately, on a trip back to his home country, that young child who had accomplished so much, was killed by slave catchers. The interpreter reminds the visitors as they walk back to their cars, the famous words of Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Thank you doubleshotcanister and Cuyahoga National Park for reminding us all, that public history should, that public history needs to help visitors connect with the past in the present, and use their understanding of that past to engage with modern and controversial issues their societies face today.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

"...Sexual Relations with that Woman...": Why the Lee Quote is Still Valid

A quick reflection this week. This started as a comment on Brooks Simpson's comments on Colin Woodward's blog post at his new blog civilwarhistorian highlighting a quote he found in a Massachusetts newspaper. Whew... now that that's out of the way.

The validity of the quote has been called into question, and seemingly thereby its usefulness to the historian. But I object to consigning this tidbit to the dustbin of history.

Did this man shtup his slaves?
Is that really the most important
thing we can discover from this
account? / PD / cwpbh 03116
The quote has now been proven valid and invalid simultaneously. Colin has since posted an update at his blog offering the reading of John Neff (University of Mississippi) that the piece refers to a daughter of Parke Custis and not Robert E. Lee. So, the soldier's reading of the situation was, in essence, dead wrong. Still, there were master-slave relations at Arlington, so the concept is proven somewhat right.

This quote is like a Schrödinger's cat of the Civil War.

Does the flaw within the soldier's words render them an invalid historical source?

Certainly, they cannot and should not be used to prove that Robert E. Lee slept with his house staff. He might have. He mightn't have. We don't know the answer to that one without a solid primary source to the affirmative. This soldier's account is a far cry from a primary source, in essence being hearsay evidence of an account that was itself hearsay. Even if the facts of the case were true, this soldier did not witness the events firsthand. Neither did the woman who claims to be Lee's daughter (for a quite obvious 9-month long reason).

But is there other value in those words? Read them closely:

At the cook house for the overseer’s family I noticed an octoroon, nearly white, with fine features. She told me that her mother, long since dead was a quadroon and Gen. Lee’s housekeeper at Arlington, and to the question, ‘Was your father a colored man?’ she answered without hesitation ‘No,–master’s my father.” And this father and master now leads an army, the sole purpose of which is to establish a government founded on an institution which enslaves his own children, making his own flesh and blood saleable property!
-Soldier in Greenfield, MA Gazette & Courier, 15 June 1863

Look at that soldier's assertion. He wants desperately to believe that Lee would fight to keep his own children in slavery. It certainly has been a long war by 1863, and will only get longer. Villainizing the enemy can get a soldier through the long arduous marches and hot battles. Look at the need of this man to see the war framed starkly in the world of moral crusade, and not a simple war to save the nebulous Union.

The Confederate cause is plain in this soldier's estimation. The rebel armies march for slavery. The rebel officers command their men to victory in order to establish a slave nation. This is what the soldier finds abhorrent in the South. It is what impels him to pick up a rifle and charge into battle. It is the means he chooses to villainize Lee in his own mind. This soldier is fighting for a high ideal, indeed the highest: the freedom of another man.

So is this source invalidated just because the information it contains is false? Definitely not. It just can't be used how everyone immediately expects. The soldier's longing for the validity of the facts is just as useful to an historian. The imaginary Lee this soldier constructs is the embodiment of both the general Confederate beau idéal and the personification of the very thing he is fighting to prevent. The imagined Lee becomes a crystal clear window into this fighting man's motivation.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Slavery and Justice: What Brown University has taught me about Public History

John and I have often written posts for this blog describing what we feel to be good standards and examples of public history. I first questioned what public history meant in one of my first posts, and more recently, John added his thoughts about Sam Richard’s TED talk on empathy and how it relates to the field of public history.

In the post today, I want to add to that debate by discussing Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. John recently turned me on to this, and while I still haven’t read the whole report (available in pdf), I’m really impressed by what I’ve read so far. For those of you who are not familiar with the report, I highly recommend it - it is very insightful. The Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice report documents Brown University’s public struggle with its historic foundations which, are tied inextricably to the economics of slavery and the slave trade. The committee’s report seeks to reconcile with Brown’s historic past and find where the present lives in the past.

The report seeks to answer the question:
How are we, as members of the Brown community, as Rhode Islanders, and as citizens and residents of the United States, to make sense of our complex history? How do we reconcile those elements of our past that are gracious and honorable with those that provoke grief and horror? What responsibilities, if any, rest upon us in the present as inheritors of this mixed legacy? The Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice represents one institution’s confrontation with these questions.

The Steering Committee is doing public history. It asks people to consider, “What does our history mean to us today?” and, “What should we do about the parts of the past that aren’t so honorable?” The goals of the committee were not only to present the, “University’s historic entanglement with slavery and the slaver trade and to report the findings openly and truthfully,” but also to, “reflect on the meaning of this history in the present, on the complex historical, political, legal, and moral questions posed by any present day confrontation with past injustice.” The committee’s goals were to acknowledge the past, and recognizing that it can’t be changed, ask and foster the debate today on what could be done going forward. The committee is actively engaging the community and the country with the past, and what it means to us today. It’s practicing public/civic engagement. As the president of the University stated, it was, “an effort designed to involve the campus community in a discovery of the meaning of our past…Understanding our history and suggesting how the full truth of that history can be incorporated into our common traditions will not be easy. But, then it doesn’t have to be.”

Why would an institution do this, you might ask? What does it accomplish? Why open chapters of the past that are controversial and painful? Brown University faced the same questions while undergoing this project. Their answer was simple – “Brown is a University.” Even today, the institution recognized that it was part of that past, it was a descendent of that past, and that it was forever connected to that past. Historically and morally, Brown is forever connected to its history and slavery.

Reading the first half of the report, I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s great public history. Along with fostering empathy, this is where public history needs to be headed. Brown University becomes human through the report. The institution, struggles with difficult problems, and they are the first to admit, that they don’t necessarily have all the answers – none of us do. Hopefully, by engaging the community and greater public, they can foster a discussion, that while it may never furnish the perfect answer, it might at least encourage debate and maybe a consensus.

Brown University image courtesy of Brown University Library via Wikipedia. "Am I not a man..." courtesy of LoC.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Interpreting Beyond the Battles: Could We Start with the Klan?

Jake has been having fun imagining and observing how battlefields can move beyond what I've called "Three Days in July" syndrome.

You might have noticed in the blog's background image the masthead of the Gettysburg Times, special Ku Klux Klan edition. Intriguing, isn't it? While doing research a number of years ago, I came across an amazing photo of the Gettysburg battlefield in the collection at Gettysburg National Military Park.

That image was so tantalizing, and has led down a rabbit hole of research. Suffice it to say for now that the Second Klan had a pervasive presence in Gettysburg and southern Pennsylvania. I'll unwrap how entrenched the Klan was as we move along. Right now, let's focus on that photo.

Detail depicting Oak Ridge Observation
Tower before it was modified in the 1960s
In 1925, the Pennsylvania Klan held its annual convention in Gettysburg in September. The Times called the Klan's parade through town a, "gorgeous display," and a, "monster procession." The Times headline trumpeted that, "vary-colored robes, capes and gowns present spectacle as Knights, Klanswomen and Junior Members march under warm September sun before large crowds along sidewalks."

The procession marched out to the site of their rally for the weekend, the sweeping fields of the Forney Farm. They ringed the field with automobiles, using their headlights to illuminate the scene well into the night. They straddled the land where just over fifty years before men of Iverson's Brigade had marched and bled and died fighting for a nation which stood on the cornerstone of the utter subjugation of African-Americans. Now, a second time, an army descended upon that hill to advocate for the superiority of whites over blacks, this time adding Jews and Catholics to the list of undesirables.

Imagine that story on the landscape. Imagine telling that story right along with the story of the battle. It points to the continuum of the war, to the evolution of thought and the eventual consequences of the actions of the men who fought on that land.

The distinctive monument of the
83rd NYSV, surrounded by Model-Ts
And there are plenty of tangible reminders out on the field. In the background of the photo, you can pick out a number of recognizable features that visitors can easily find on today's landscape. The Oak Ridge Observation tower figures prominently in the skyline, before it was neutered to half its height. To its right, you can see the monument of the 83rd NYSV with the eagle spreading its wings above its pinnacle. Following the ridge line you can easily find the blurry soldier with an upturned rifle of the 11th Pennsylvania's monument.

You can imagine standing at one of those monuments, describing the scene to a group of visitors. Let them touch the monument. Then show them the photograph of the rally.

One marcher with the Klansmen
sports a sign reading "Spirit of 1861."
The rally was huge. Groups from across Pennsylvania descended upon the fields of Gettysburg. The paper described the town as being festooned with red, white and blue to welcome their heroes. The Klan parade trekked through the streets of the borough, wending down Carlisle street and into the Diamond, then to Baltimore street. They turned onto High Street for a block, and then back north on Washington Street. The imposing group of hundreds of hooded figures skirted the core of the black community of Gettysburg as they marched in military lines.

One of the marchers carried a sign declaring that the gathering was celebrating the, "Spirit of 1861." But which spirit was that which this group of white clad ghosts was celebrating? Was it the spirit of 1861 which tore a nation apart over the brutal question of chattel slavery? Or was it the spirit which set out to preserve that nation and eventually morphed into a quest to rid the nation of the terror of human bondage?

The most curious thing to me, though? Front and center in the image is a line of Klan dignitaries, colorful hoods standing atop their heads. And who accompanies these men? For all the world, they look to be standing beside veterans of the Civil War. Those look suspiciously like uniforms of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Are these GAR members alongside the Pennsylvania Grand Dragon and assorted other officers?
How did these men, standing on the Gettysburg battlefield, rectify their participation in the pageant with Lincoln's, "new birth of freedom," declared half a century earlier? It's that sort of question which I think many people who visit Civil War battlefields would find not only interesting to ponder and reflect upon, but indeed crucial to understanding the road we've taken from the Civil War to Civil Rights.

And isn't that what this whole place is about, Charlie Brown?

This isn't the end of the story, but the beginning. I'm still digging. The Klan activity in this county in the '20s is intriguing. And it all takes on new meaning when you look at it in the context of the town as national emblem. The shifting memory of this place, and the political use to which the battlefield has been leveraged, is just as much an important story as the battle itself. Afterall, it had just as much to do with the shaping of the nation.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

"For the People...": Do the 'Not We' Own Gettysburg?

This'll be a long one...

Unlike a few critics from the Civil War blogging community of this past Monday's History Channel presentation of Gettysburg, I watched the whole thing from beginning to end. I've since watched it again. I took mental notes; I paid keen attention.

Monday night I also watched on Twitter. I expected the experience to be very different than a couple weeks ago, when I watched with America as freedom fighters were beat to a bloody pulp for suggesting that we all might be better off if we tried to get along. Not badly different, just different. I was not disappointed.

However, the Civil War community was terribly disappointed, even before the curtain rose on the documentary. They were spoiling for its failure weeks ago, praying for the sins to shine through. Some were pointing out the "egregious historical inaccuracies" of uniform bits and bobs, like a hat pinned incorrectly or a rifle musket at full cock were cardinal sins worthy of crucifixion. Others, like those on the Gettysburg Discussion Group, of which I am a loyal reader, bemoaned the film before seeing a lick of the actual production. Questions were raised as to the weight of the scholars who had been consulted, as no one had heard from anyone who had been interviewed for the film.

Was some of this criticism leveled at the documentary simply because it was gritty and raw? It certainly tried to show the horror of war threadbare. Michael Lynch pointed out his distaste for, "the gritty, modern war approach to filming the reenacted sequences." The film was dirty and bloody. It depicted war unvarnished. Is that the source of some of the academic and amateur historical community's kneejerk reaction to the piece? Is it too firmly wiping away the ancient myth that the Civil War was a dignified affair, replacing the notion with one of murderous chaos and unromantic rage? "The combination of nineteenth-century gear and modern-day combat camera work was a little too jarring." Might it have been jarring because we don't like to think of the Civil War as analogous to the bloody messes of modern combat, but instead as a land of sterile red and blue boxes moving across sterile maps.

Some folks within the Civil War diehard community understand that the documentary wasn't targeted at them. Take a look at the astute observations of Andrew Mills on the GDG:

"...At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone watching the Gettysburg show on the history channel will remember what side the Hardee hats were pinned on, and the insignia of the infantry's hats. But if the show gets people interested in the events and causes people to want to learn more about the event by visiting the location, reading books, joining discussion groups, isn’t that more important than the finite details of a 'cocked rifle on a marching infantry man?'"

So, we start coming down to the questions this documentary raises - Do we need to cover the whole of the battle to make something about Gettysburg? Is it such an egregious error to make a Gettysburg documentary and not mention Chamberlain? Were Hardee hats and crossed rifles important?

Most important are these two - Did the target audience 'get it'? and Who owns Gettysburg?

So, did they? Lets turn to Monday night, as America gave its live feedback to History. The hashtag was #gettysburg on Twitter. Many comments were made by diehards and hardcores that hats were wrong. Twitter was flooded with "Ughs!" over little details.

You're going to wonder where I'm going with this, but hang tight. I watch Doctor Who and am a rabid fan. One forum I frequent about the British Sci-fi series is Gallifrey Base, where as soon as the show hits the airwaves across the pond, the boards light up with commentary. But we're all weirdly obsessive fans who disect episodes and know the show's canon by heart. Every week, though, there is a thread asking what the 'Not We' thought of the show. The fixation on what the non-fans, the non-Doctor-Who-experts, the normal folks think of the episode is crucial, for poor ratings will ensure our beloved alien doctor never plies the airwaves of the BBC again.

So, what did the 'Not We' think? What did the casual, non-Civil-War-obsessed viewers of the Gettysburg documentary think? Did it hit its mark? [1]

Twitter user @bowtiesforever commented that she has, "never been that interested in American History, but this might change that."

Aaron Jones (@aarontjones) noted that his, "9 yr old [son] Gabe is taking notes watching #Gettysburg on #History Channel. I was just yelled at when I flipped chnls during commercials."

Patricia Diaz Swedin (@patriciaswedin) noted after the first hour of the show that her, "ten-year old is up past bedtime, at the edge of his seat. GOOD job #HistoryChannel."

The enthusiasm that the documentary instilled in many is simply amazing. Adam Zenore (@zen1mada) exclaimed that, "This Gettysburg special is pretty fucking sweet! Not much of a Civil War Buff... but I may start having to be."

Russell Mcintyre (@russellmc03) commented that, "if History classes made students watch documentaries like "Gettysburg" I would add a History major this second. #nerdalert #somuchkilling"

Meanwhile, Rick Sheridan (@ricksheridan) acknowledged he is, "not a Civil War fanatic," but the battle, "was such a monumental event it beckons the casual historian like me."

User @obscureathletes, a sports fan, scolded their followers: "If you're watching sports this evening instead of Gettysburg on the History Channel, then what the hell is wrong with you?"

Finally, a user named Marco (@SAGonzo_) summed up the difference between this documentary and many others. "This documentary is showing me more I never knew about and making it very human!"

Whose right is it to decide what stays and what goes in an 87 minute production on the battle? Or an hour long battlefield tour? Or a three hour guided driving tour? Should we suit our offerings to our audience, or simply open up a firehose and tell them to drink its fetid, fast-moving and uninteresting water?

Obviously, you can't cram three days of battle, over 55 continuous hours of fighting and posturing, into an hour or two. It is impossible to be comprehensive in such a short time-frame. So, you can choose two options. The first choice is to try to be comprehensive and doom yourself to fail abysmally at imparting any of the importance of the story. Think of this as a sort of reverse of the old adage: 'you fail to see the trees for the forest.'

Or you can acknowledge your inability to be comprehensive from the outset and focus down on a few key trees, helping your audience to appreciate them and, through that appreciation, the whole forest. Brooks Simpson thinks the writers, director and producers were scatterbrained in their organizational structure. I'll not deny this disjointedness. However, I don't see it as a bad thing. The tale woven on Monday night was admitted from the get-go to be non-comprehensive. The first lines of the documentary are as follows:

The same passion that built our nation now tears it apart. A minor skirmish that starts by accident explodes into the deadliest battle every fought on U.S. soil. Two American armies face off in a small Pennsylvania farm town. Soon 50,000 will be dead, wounded or missing. This is the story of eight men who fight here and three days that change America forever.

The ring of this prologue is very similar in my ear to the beginning of Quantum Leap, explaining the premise of the story wholly. We aren't looking at Samuel Beckett's whole life on Quantum Leap, just snapshots that help us to understand the whole. Likewise, we're not seeing the whole battle of Gettysburg in the documentary, but viewing it from eight moments in time experienced by eight men on that battlefield.

Remember my post a few weeks back about loving science fiction? That love breeds how I try to construct history. Audiences typically don't care how a dinglehopper works, but what effect it has on the story. Therefore, the detail chosen to be included in a good sci-fi story are pertinent to the plot or the character's development and not simple technology porn. The details should always be relevant ones. Checkov's gun always has to go off in a well planned narrative by the second or third act. It's a law of narrative.

So, if you can't be comprehensive, the best course of action is to instill appreciation through the description of a part of the whole. And in crafting that description, include only the important details and few extraneous guns that won't 'go off' by the third act.

So who should 'own' Gettysburg and its stories? Should the subject be the pantheon of the dedicated military historians and hobbyists, as it was intended to be when the war department set aside a national park solely for use as a military laboratory to study the minutiae of tactics in 1895? Or can it be an intellectual landscape that everyone owns, experts and novices alike? Just because a documentary is tailored to a novice audience, does that make it bad?

Two Twitter users, firmly members of the 'We', summed up their answer to that question. Gary P. Salmon (@GPSSR) posted that, "Only those who know nothing to begin with about The Battle of Gettysburg would think this is a great show!!" Peter Marra (@Marraman) replied: "@GPSSR Amen. This show was apparently made for people who have never heard of Gettysburg (or even the Civil War). Pathetic. #Gettysburg"

So what if it was, Peter? So what?

[EDIT: Michael Lynch posted some interesting comments about the documentary in response to this post. They're well worth a look.]